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If someone asks me "How kind is she?", I can respond with a single word such as "very," "extremely," or "unimaginably". This makes sense, because they fit into the sentence "She is [very/extremely/unimaginaly] kind."

However, my instincts tell me that I can't respond to this question with a single word "so". My question is, why can't I? After all, "She is so kind" is perfectly valid, and means pretty much the same as the others, as far as I know.

Are there other similarly exceptional intensifiers that I should avoid? Or am I just wrong about "so" being non-standard in such contexts?

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    "How kind is she?" "Very." is technically correct as an exchange, but not very likely in real life. I think "So" doesn't work here because the word has other possible meanings; as a single-word sentence it isn't obvious that it means 'very'. Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 17:30
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    This seems based on misconceptions: "so" has multiple meanings that "very" doesn't have (it can mean "the same", or be used as an intensifier, or as a conjunction, and even "so kind" can have multiple meanings). You could probably answer "How big is it?" with "So" if you gestured a size, or use "so" to change the subject. You actually might be able to answer "How kind is she?" with "so" if your tone of voice indicated that you were in rapture about how kind she was.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 17:46
  • So kind are you! (as opposed to You are so kind!) is "Yoda-speak". Same as would be Very kind are you! Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 19:25
  • @apaderno - why isn't the 'so' tag relevant here?
    – CDR
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 18:44

2 Answers 2

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The reason that so doesn’t work as a one-word response arises from another difference between so and all of its colleagues—very, extremely, highly, and the like. All of these latter express a position or region near or at the maximum end of whatever scale is being discussed.

If you imagine a slider that controls the audio level of a sound system, and someone’s asking you to set it to “very loud” or “extremely loud,” that would constitute a fairly unambiguous instruction for you to position the slider near or at the rightmost extent of its range of travel. But so doesn’t work that way: although an observation, “That is so loud” often means essentially the same as “That is very loud” and “That is extremely loud,” it would be very odd for a native speaker of English to request, “*Please set the music to so loud” or “*Please make the music so loud.”

In fact, “That is so X” can usually be understood as a shortening of “That is so X that P,” for some unspecified phrase P.

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The answer is probably unsatisfying, but in this case, that's just the way it is. I almost never give this answer to learners, but if you dig down far enough with "why" questions, eventually you hit this bedrock of "Just because", and this is one of those bedrock situations that isn't part of any rule.

Even though the word "so" can be used with the same function as "very" before an adjective or "very much" after a verb phrase, it simply cannot be used with that meaning as a one-word sentence.

When I hear "so" as a one-word answer to that question, this is what I actually understand:

Alice: How kind is she?
Bob: To that level.

Alice's obvious next question is, "To what level???"


The reason is a historical one, nothing rule-based, so that's enough information if you just want to learn how to use "so" correctly. If you want to know the historical roots, it's almost certainly related to "so"'s earlier meaning, "to an indicated or suggested extent or degree" (Merriam-Webster). I'd ask on EL&U rather than here. Be clear in your question that you're not asking for help with English, that you just want the history of that rule.

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